In praise of Gregg Popovich, the NBA's stoic court jester

The curmudgeonly coach has a funny side — and the joke's on the competition

Gregg Popovich
(Image credit: (AP Photo/Eric Gay))

San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is widely perceived as something of a joyless basketball savant.

Prowling the sidelines with a permanent scowl will do that to a coach's reputation, especially when that coach has won more games — he picked up win number 1,000 on Monday — than all but eight others in the history of the league. So, too, will making remarks like, "Happy's not a word we think about in the game," and, "Happy is not a concept coaches are comfortable with."

So yeah, Popovich can come off as a curmudgeonly buzzkill. And yet, he is also the sort of guy who will break out into uninhibited dad dancing:

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Much of Popovich's reputation as a spoilsport comes from his terse dismissal of courtside reporters, which have prompted comparisons to running back Marshawn "I'm just here so I don't get fined" Lynch. But as Pop explained to USA Today, he doesn't hate dealing with the press. He just hates being forced to answer inane, formulaic questions that cut into his coaching time. So chalking it up to a "philosophical difference" with the league, Pop dutifully answers all those fatuous questions with equally fatuous answers.

In that sense, Popovich's refusal to play along is something of a subversive comedy routine. In his most brilliant bit of sideline comedy, Popovich answered each of a reporter's questions with a single word: turnovers.

That sense of humor bleeds into Popovich's approach to coaching, too. Unsatisfied with his team's performance, he'll at times call a timeout only to pantomime confusion or disgust, never offering advice. He once huddled his team, shrugged, and sent them back onto the floor without saying a word.

The comedy routine isn't just for laughs. It doubles as an effective motivational technique that empowers players to improve their collective play.

"I can give them some bulls--t and act like I'm a coach or something, but it's on them," he explained of his curt timeouts.

That's not to say Popovich isn't fond of practical jokes though.

In 2008, Shaquille O'Neal called Pop out over his "cowardly" Hack-a-Shaq tactic. (O'Neal shot free throws with the grace of a blindfolded rhino, so opponents often deliberately sent him to the line late in games.) The next time their teams met, Popovich instructed his team to foul Shaq five seconds into the game. Pop flashed a thumbs up, and even Shaq had to laugh.

Pop ribs his own team as well. Notorious for giving his aging players extra rest, Popovich in 2012 explained that Tim Duncan sat out an entire game not because of a nagging injury, but because he was "old." That wasn't an offhand explanation either; it was the official reason Popovich listed when submitting his lineup. Pop pulled the same stunt in 2007 with a then-37-year-old Robert Horry, albeit with an exclamation point after "old age."

Perhaps the story that best exemplifies Pop's dichotomous persona, though, is one that predates his NBA tenure.

As an Air Force cadet during the Cold War, Popovich considered pursuing a CIA career. Fancying himself as something of a James Bond type, he showed up for intelligence training in a Corvette. Before becoming the gruff genius who pranks his own players, Pop already envisioned himself adopting conflicting personas.

Remember what Popovich said about basketball and an aversion to happiness? Maybe that was all a joke, too. Consider the final line of his yearbook entry from the Air Force Academy: "His future plans include happiness."

Good one, Pop.

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Jon Terbush

Jon Terbush is an associate editor at covering politics, sports, and other things he finds interesting. He has previously written for Talking Points Memo, Raw Story, and Business Insider.